We are, with the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary/commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, about at the end of the Civil War gala; or perhaps never at the end. An estimated 60,000 books have been published on the War, with no end in sight, and the battle re-enactments alone, numbering thousands of outfitted amateurs each year, would alone guarantee memory-continuation. More painfully, the unresolved issues of race press upon us all. The great wound has not healed.
No accurate estimate has been made of the number of comic books written about Lincoln and the Civil War. The normal print runs of Classics Illustrated comics in the 1950s and '60s, including the two titles Abraham Lincoln and The Civil War, were upwards of a half million or even beyond. Such circulation figures shame successors including my own comic, Lincoln for Beginners. A generous handful of comics on subjects of U.S. history, published within the last decade or so, have successfully raised the level of nonfiction comic art. Only a few Young Adult titles, however, happen to be actual Civil War books, a mini-genre easily confused with the Marvel Civil War series that is intergalactic superhero stuff at best metaphorically connected to events of the 1860s.
Battle Lines, in any case, is a graphic novel masterpiece. For what it’s worth, the estimable Josh Neufeld says pretty much the same, in a back cover blurb. The book’s artist, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, who claims to be heavily influenced by the achingly realistic Two-Fisted Tales series (with the occasional Civil War tale) edited, written, and often drawn by Harvey Kurtzman, is the past winner of a best “g.n. for teens” award, an honor accorded by the American Library Association. Scriptwriter Ari Kelman, no slouch, himself won a Bancroft Award from the history profession awards for his volume, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek. He teaches at Penn State, and this is his maiden voyage into the comics world.
What’s so good about this book? For one thing, past Hill and Wang comics (including mine) have mostly been black-and-white productions, altogether competent and pleasing. This is something different, more nearly akin to the colors and washes of Ben Katchor’s delightfully odd and arty works. To be a little more specific, it was Brendan Leach (past winner of an Ignatz) who did the washes, with Fetter-Vorm handling the drawing, lettering, and colors. Also noted by the artist as influences: The action drawings of Joe Sacco, especially that unique boxy Great War, likewise the work of Frank Miller (in 300), paintings of Winslow Homer and Alfred Waud, not to mention the vast quantity of Civil War pictorial histories.
What do we know when we know this? Each reviewer is liable to come to a personal conclusion because the visual sampling or genre-hopping suggests a host of possibilities. Perhaps the consensus choice might be “pictorial histories” after all, if only because so many of us, in childhood, owned just such a pictorial history, prominent in military officers (General Burnside, because of sideburns if nothing else, and then Grant, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and so on), maps of battles and always, photos or drawings of Abe Lincoln. Perhaps these pictorial histories were the originals for television’s The World at War and the whole History Channel operation, not to mention Ken Burns.
Battle Lines, in beautifully muted tones, is a comic which is also a series of individual stories, some of a few people or even a single person, some broadly “political” history, some familiar (think: John Brown or the Battle of Bull Run), some becoming known only thanks to recent scholarship (uprisings of white women in Confederate cities, when supplies ran low and price-gougers moved in). Some few appear to be taken directly from photographs, like the luxurious double-page spread of dead horses following the Battle of Gettysburg. On many pages, this is “graphic history” in another key because like a “graphic” presentation of violence or sex in films, book,s or the web, it is shocking by nature, and yet here obviously presented for the tender, i.e., young, viewer-reader. With the web almost universally available, no ten-year-old is likely to be naïve any more.
The artist suggests that the actual war-time engravings, in popular magazines like Harper’s or Frank Leslie’s, were themselves proto-comics of the violent, pre-Code type. Readers of all kinds picked up the magazines or even newspapers with front page images, and saw scenes of a detailed, realistic kind never presented of war before. These were obviously fascinating, in the grimmest sense. But hard, surely for many readers. to look at for very long at a time. Battle Lines literally, as far as comic art can be literal, recreates the work of the battlefield photographer tramping through a field, with his assistant, and capturing the visage of a corpse.
This is not a wholly new way to tell a story, either. There has been so much experimentation in styles of nonfiction comics narrative within the work of Peter Kuper, for instance, that the visualized path of a mosquito or the repetition of frames (to suggest a certain monotony of life in a military prison) will be familiar as other ways to do what only a comic can do. But the art of being playful in the most dire historic circumstances demonstrates, page after page, how a large event in US history can be depicted and understood, a prospect more vivid for today’s youthful readers. Battle Lines literally offers “new perspectives,” both because the scholarship is up to date and because the perspectives themselves as so fresh.
Perhaps, however, the individual-story-line method also avoids or obscures at times the strengths of more traditional narrative approaches, even those with similar political sympathies. Eric Foner’s Pulitzer-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery heavily emphasizes Lincoln’s quiet conversion from an earlier religious skepticism to an evangelism of blood sacrifice drawn from the pages of the Old Testament. This Abolitionist-like sentiment, reflected in the field by Union soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body” as they marched into mayhem, has faded in recent decades due to a collective memory of horror, a guilt at the Union freeing slaves only as a reluctant second thought, and probably as a distancing from religious fervor as well. In Battle Lines, as in the Ken Burns version, the Civil War almost seems at times little more than a terrible mistake, a nearly meaningless bloodbath leading to the Ku Klux Klan and to African American sharecropping, slavery by another name.
This can’t be accurate and yet, as Hegel was reputed to have said about the book of human history, the pages of happiness appear to be blank. The starkness of Battle Lines may be either its greatest strength or weakness, depending upon the reader’s point of view. Whatever the case, it is an unforgettable presentation of the most memorable days of the Republic.
Paul Buhle, whose Abolitionist great-great-grandfather marched with Sherman through Georgia, has edited a dozen non-fiction comic works. The next to appear will be Red Rosa, a life of Rosa Luxemburg.